Struggling Teams Test Their Zero Tolerance
After consecutive wearying late-night flights, two dreadful basketball games, two sprained ankles and the odd swipe at Bill Walton, the Lakers reported Thursday morning to El Segundo, worrying first about Kobe Bryant’s right ankle and second about their first week of basketball.
The rap music bounded through their gym at 11:30, followed by the sounds of basketballs and sneakers, Bryant’s among them, and then Coach Phil Jackson’s voice.
The dreary basketball will be fixed, presumably, the moment Shaquille O’Neal retakes the floor for good, and he raised spirits Thursday by participating in a light scrimmage. Bryant’s ankle might not be so easily cured, though he did practice and the Lakers were reasonably sure he’d play tonight against the Clippers at Staples Center.
Not far from El Segundo, at L.A. Southwest College, the Clippers mulled 27 minutes and no points from Elton Brand the previous night, along with various other opening-night mysteries. Coach Alvin Gentry and a dozen or so players, all with a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers to bear, and the Lakers ahead, practiced long and hard, sweating out the Zydrunas Ilgauskas shot that had beaten them the night before.
So begins basketball season in Los Angeles, the 0-2 Lakers being the only thing standing between last place and the 0-1 Clippers.
And although no one expected a seamless early season from the Lakers, playing without the NBA’s most ferocious player, neither did anyone figure on 0-2 looking like this. A defending champion hadn’t opened the season 0-2 since the Seattle SuperSonics 23 years ago, and hasn’t opened 0-3 since 1969, when the Boston Celtics started 0-4.
And although no one expected perfection from the Clippers after a summer that left Michael Olowokandi and Brand without contract extensions, neither did they assume a home loss to the Cavaliers with 1,000 empty seats at Staples Center. What exactly happened to “Love it Live?”
“It’s a loss,” Gentry said. “It’s a home loss. It’s a long way from being the end of the world.”
It’s at least 81 games from there.
The Lakers summoned similar perspective, a simple task, given that their newest championship rings haven’t even come back from the appraiser yet.
“I mean, we lost two games,” Bryant said. “It isn’t that tragic.... It definitely hurts, but we have to keep our minds on the big picture.”
Bryant has assumed the brunt of the Lakers’ scoring, averaging 26 points.
As usual, and particularly when O’Neal isn’t on the floor, he has played in the gray area between shooting because they need him to and shooting because he feels he must. Either way, no one finds it unreasonable. When he shot 29 times against the Spurs, Bryant admitted 29 were too many, and Jackson coolly surmised that Bryant did what he’d felt he must. It speaks to Jackson’s trust in him, a relatively new development.
Slava Medvedenko is the only Laker other than Bryant to have scored in double figures in both games, and he had six of his 15 in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s blowout in Portland. Derek Fisher has shot three for 17, Devean George is five for 16, and Robert Horry is seven for 19, all at a time when the Lakers could have used the extra offense from their veterans.
In two games, the Lakers have committed 37 turnovers, been outrebounded, 98-89, have scored 21 or fewer points in five of eight quarters, and have shot 47 free throws to their opponents’ 76.
So they cling to Bryant, which probably is why they folded in his brief absence against the Trail Blazers, upon finding themselves suddenly without him or O’Neal. It was not a complete surprise, given that players new to the Lakers -- Soumaila Samake, Tracy Murray, Jannero Pargo and Kareem Rush -- have accounted for nearly 100 minutes, of a possible 480, and O’Neal has accounted for none.
“Actually, we’re playing better than I thought we might play,” Jackson said. “We’re competing. Guys are playing hard. If we shot anything like we feel a good team should, we’d be 1-1. That’s ifs. We have to do that now on the court.”
O’Neal could be only a few games from returning, perhaps a week away. A difficult early schedule persists, however, with Portland on Sunday and an early trip East, through Cleveland, Boston and Washington, after tonight’s game. The Lakers haven’t been 0-3 since 1978.
But no one’s thinking about that.
“We’re just trying to get ready, basically, for basketball,” Jackson said.